Composer: Dmitry Shostakovich
Orchestra: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Conductor: Mariss Jansons
Number of Discs: 1 SACD
Format: FLAC (tracks)
Label: Rco Live
Size: 613 MB
01. I. Allegretto
02. II. Moderato (poco allegretto)
03. III. Adagio
04. IV. Allegro non troppo
The best performance ever? No. An excellent performance? Yes.
I can’t challenge the consensus opinion of other reviewers that this is an excellent performance–it certainly is. But it does have some significant issues, and in my opinion, this is definitely NOT superior to Kleiber’s legendary Vienna Philharmonic (VPO) performance (Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7), which to my ears, is still the recording to get.
There is very little conceptual difference between this performance with the Bavarian State Orchestra (Bav.SO), and Kleiber’s 1970s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG. The differences lie largely in execution.
On the plus side, there is an added level of energy in the Bav.SO 4th movement, which is distinctive as compared to the VPO performance. And the “brass moments” in this performance are marginally more prominent, in a positive manner, than in the VPO performance.
But there are negative trade-offs too, and for me, they point to the VPO performance being the better of the two. The 1st movement in this performance seems to not create the same irresistible momentum that Kleiber achieves in the VPO performance. Also, the very end of the finale of the VPO performance has a “bloom” that is so memorable and moving that Kleiber fails to achieve in this performance. But most seriously of all, the Bav.SO is just not in the same league as the VPO. The principal oboist in the Bav.SO is truly awful–it’s disconcerting to listen to him/her because the oboist’s tone and “attack” are just so distracting and disruptive. I couldn’t stand listening to the oboist’s solo moments.
It’s hard to imagine anyone listening to this performance who would fail to enjoy it. But that said, to my ears, it’s not a toss-up as to whether or not the VPO performance is better than this one. The VPO performance has a clear advantage (even without respect to cost–this one cost me $22, whereas the VPO recording costs less than $10 and also includes Kleiber’s legendary performance of the 5th symphony also). To my ears, the VPO performance still remains a clear first choice.
But even with these problems, it would be misguided to call this much less than a 5-star performance (4.5 stars would be fair). Virtually all of the other reviewers proclaim this as Kleiber’s best recording of the 7th, and some even call it the greatest 7th of all time. Respectfully, I disagree with both assessments. The VPO 7th is.
An Essential Seventh
Carlos Kleiber gave us one of the great recorded Beethoven Sevenths, with the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Gramophon. He also committed an excellent live performance of the symphony to video with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, now available on a Philips DVD. Do we really need another Kleiber Seventh? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that this stunning account of the work hasn’t seen the light of day until recently. It beggars belief that the Bavarian State Orchestra performance on this disc should eclipse the other two, but that is exactly the case. To be fair, the BSO is not quite in the same league as the Vienna or Concertgebouw orchestras in terms of opulence and tonal splendor. But what the BSO may lack in superior virtuosity, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm and energy, and to my ears it sells this music in a way that the other two orchestras just don’t. More so than in any other performance I have heard of the work, irrespective of conductor, this Beethoven Seventh blazes with a white heat, threatening to ignite everything around it. It is as if Kleiber and the Bavarians all ate speed-laced Wheaties prior to coming on stage, exuberantly playing the lights out of this masterpiece. And yet, for all its fire and intensity, the performance never sounds hectic or disorganized, and is always of a piece with itself. Kleiber’s characteristic attention to detail, structure and texture remains intact. The sense of occasion does not dim with repeated listenings, either. This performance has a rightness about it, a certain inevitability that, to paraphrase another reviewer, makes the listener feel this is exactly how this music should be played. This is easily Kleiber’s best Beethoven Seventh on record, and one of the great Beethoven symphony recordings, period.
This recording is equally compelling sonically.* Those familiar with the sonics of Kleiber’s recording of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony with the BSO, also on Orfeo, will find similar sound here. The orchestra has great presence and immediacy; brass and timpani are especially thrillingly caught, almost startlingly so. I did notice an occasional “sheen” on some of the upper strings that slightly betrays the recording’s origins. There is also audible analog tape hiss in the quieter passages – not horrible, but noticeable on close listening. Moreover, this is a “warts and all” live recording, complete with audience noises, chair squeaks, sharp intakes of breath (presumably from Kleiber), the occasional instrumental gaffe, and the like. The liner notes list only a single recording date – May 3, 1982 – and from the sound of it, this is an unedited single take, unfolding in real time. The acoustic is very much one of a hall with an audience in it, quite different from the open resonance of the empty Musikverein featured on the DG recording. Nevertheless, the sound on this disc is generally outstanding, besting both the Vienna and Concertgebouw recordings, with a vividness to match the performance it captures. (In hearing this recording, one is left to imagine how similarly wonderful the original recording of Kleiber’s one and only performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony with this orchestra must have sounded before the master tape disintegrated. Such a loss.)
Despite my enthusiasm for this recording, I should point out some relatively minor misgivings I have with it. The first is Kleiber’s omission of exposition repeats, both in the first and fourth movements. The repeats were a welcome feature of his Vienna recording; I do miss them here. Also, Kleiber divided the string desks antiphonally in Vienna, which allows the listener to hear the dialog between them in the finale to thrilling effect; here, both desks are seated together on the left, which slightly diminishes the impact. Still, neither point is enough to mar in any substantial way an otherwise outstanding performance.
It is easy to see why the folks at Orfeo felt this recording was worthy of release, despite an already glutted market of Beethoven Sevenths – Kleiber’s or otherwise. To have withheld it would have been to commit a crime against music lovers. We can only wonder why Kleiber himself was so reluctant to release the treasures that are his live recordings. This one is truly in the essential class.
*Disclaimer: I do not have an SACD player, so all comments regarding sound quality refer only to the LPCM stereo layer.
A noble effort
Good and how wonderful Jansons has been so proactive recordings with his latest two orchestral appointments – the Concertgebouw and Bavarian Radio. Certainly he gets a wonderful sound out of the orchestra. However, Gergiev’s performances since 2000 have much more energy, and the sound oddly enough on the Masur New York Philharmonic is out of this world. In music like this, sound can reaally make the difference along with the interpretation since the incredible orchestration in the music needs exposure for the music to reach its ultimate heights.